Independent lighting designer Paul Nulty talks retail lighting, and why retail can't afford not to use a lighting designer
Consumers continually want more for their money, and I’m not just talking about bigger and better products. What they want is an entire shopping experience. This is an opportunity for retailers, and the successful ones will give consumers what they want by engaging and connecting with them through a positive in-store experience – where consumers interact, understand and emotionally connect with a retail brand first-hand.
Purchasing products is still, of course, very important and consumers obviously have a choice when doing this: in-store or online. Even though online sales continue to enbattle those in-store, the experience that a 3D high street store offers is crucial. It’s an opportunity to elevate a consumer’s brand experience, even if they try something on in-store only to go home and purchase it online – bricks to clicks as they say.
Lighting design plays a huge part in the ever-evolving retail experience. Good lighting design has the power to create an experience because it facilitates an emotional connection, helps guide the eye through a space, and creates ambience, mood and drama. Ultimately, if experience is important then lighting is also important. An independent lighting designer will bring a wide breadth of experience and understanding to a retail space, along with taking full design responsibility. They will help develop the brand’s story through a positive ‘experience’ by getting ‘under the skin’ of the brand, spending time on and challenging the concept, adding creativity and working collaboratively; they’ll consider the beauty and ambience of the space, help define it and make the merchandise ‘pop’.
The perception of independent lighting designers is that we are expensive, and retailers with small budgets can’t necessarily afford such lighting expertise. Because of this they often approach a manufacturer or supplier of light fixtures to do the lighting design for their store/s. The problem with this route is that it’s akin to wanting a beautifully designed house and then asking the bricklayer to design it.
Manufacturers and suppliers tend to look at lighting design from a product hardware perspective rather than a lighting quality perspective. Yes, they understand their products. Yes, they understand the way a spotlight or downlight works and how it emits light. But understanding how a luminaire works is very different from understanding how light is applied in a space. A lot of manufacturers and suppliers simply aren’t trained or experienced in schematic design or the juxtaposition of light and architecture to generate emotion.
Nulty’s work for the optical department of the Selfridges store, London
I know it sounds like I’m tarnishing all manufacturers and suppliers with one brush, but that’s not the case. There are some very good lighting designers out there working for them and I don’t think good lighting design has to be the domain of the pure independent lighting designer. However, I feel there is a level of finesse in lighting design that most manufacturers and suppliers don’t convey because they are focused on hardware and, ultimately, selling products.
This isn’t to say they can’t do good design, but when you work for free you don’t have the time to challenge the concepts of an interior designer or an architect. Whereas a good independent lighting designer, who is charging a fee, will challenge and elevate the overall design. Manufacturers and suppliers also work at risk upfront, are wedded to a limited number/range of products and, importantly, don’t tend to take design responsibility. The result? Square pegs in round holes.
I recently saw a piece of writing discussing an ‘amazing’ new retail store design where the lighting supplier undertook the lighting design.
The actual store design was reasonable, but the lighting was pretty terrible with spotlights dominating the view. Ultimately most retailers don’t sell light fittings and therefore the element that should be most on view is the merchandise, not the light fittings. Even if you looked at the quality of light in the space, ignoring the hardware, the focusing and contrast was all over the place, which meant there were cusps of light over the walls creating tidemarks, there were shadows and poorly aimed fixtures illuminating the floor rather than merchandise…I could go on. What the store lacked was a coherent piece of lighting design that defined the boundaries with cove lighting and vertical wall washing, and a consistent contrast between merchandise and circulation space. In a nutshell the whole composition just looked and felt wrong.
Another case in point is an optical store with a new concept that I visited not long ago. The space was illuminated like a fashion store, with spotlights and high contrast. This in itself could be good as it’s a new take on selling opticals. When I looked in the mirror to check out the glasses, however, all I could see was the glare of the light fitting behind me. I simply couldn’t see myself for want of a light fitting blinding me. Again it was poorly planned lighting design, which actually made the shopping experience quite unpleasant.
The most successful retail stores have almost always employed the services of an independent lighting designer. In fact, if retailers want their customers to have the very best experience they need to consider all disciplines equally. If they’re going to lengths to employ an expert interior designer and/or architect they should be doing the same to employ an expert lighting designer, as well as an expert mechanical and electrical designer – all of who can work collaboratively to provide the best overall in-store experience.
Retailers should be setting budget aside to bring in a lighting specialist who can help create the right ‘experience’. If they are spending money on an interior designer or an interior architect to redevelop their merchandising strategy, or to help redevelop their overall design, then an expert should help light that.
It’s much easier to justify the cost of interior design because it’s such a tangible thing: fixtures, fittings, paint, furniture and finishes, they’re all tactile. Yet light is intangible and so people don’t tend to understand it. They see the hardware, the fixtures, but they don’t see the invisible thing that’s being kicked out of the light fitting – light itself. We only see the surfaces and finishes that the light interacts with. To have a good lighting scheme is about understanding the invisible world of light, and then understanding how it creates an emotional, engaging response and connection.
Nulty’s work for the optical department of the Selfridges store, London
Ultimately lighting designers can add to the retailer’s bottom line. A few years ago we worked with an upscale retailer to re-light its store and sales quickly increased by 17 per cent. More recently we’ve worked with a sports store and gained a seven per cent sales increase, as well as with a large high-street fashion retailer and achieved a whopping 20 per cent sales increase.
Of course such ‘wins’ don’t always have to be through in-store purchases. If a good store concept and experience is linked in with the online offering, then it is a win-win situation.
There are other long-term benefits of a well-executed piece of retail lighting design: it can help the retailer save money, both in terms of energy consumption and capital expenditure. For example, we worked with a well-known high-street retailer and reduced its energy consumption by 40 per cent while increasing light levels by 20 per cent. If it had gone to a manufacturer or supplier for a design there might have been a saving of £10k to 20k on fee, but it could have cost the retailer £100k-plus in loss of sales because of a poor in-store experience. So the question should not be ‘Can the retailer afford to work with a lighting designer?’ But rather ‘Can the retailer afford not to work with a lighting designer?’
With a considered and creative lighting scheme consumers will spend more money in-store, or online – and all because they’ve bought into, understood and connected with the brand. Bad lighting creates a missed opportunity for retailers, especially when many are under pressure or even folding. And this has never been more evident in department-store retailing right now, where many brands are suffering, and where it’s particularly important that the overall store experience is fabulous. It’s frustrating to see them making ill-informed decisions that ultimately hurt their bottom lines.